Liquid Prayers

I cry.  Sometimes once a week, certainly more often than many might find socially acceptable.  I hide it and feel ashamed of it most of the time.  The prevailing norm is that men don’t cry.  In truth, that is utter baloney.  Men cry, and they should do it whenever they need.  It is a release, a relief, a catharsis, an emotional explosion that is far less destructive than violence and far more constructive than repression.  And today, I received a new perspective on tears from Courageous Dear Heart.

Whether tears of sorrow or tears of joy, they are prayers.  What?  Tears are prayers?  Well, yes.  Why not?  They contain the raw emotion, the need, the unfettered joy, that pours from us.  If you believe that your prayers are heard no matter how they are offered (and I do), then tears are an excellent delivery system.  They rise from the heart and soul of each of us.  When we are devastated or inspired or moved, they pour forth unbidden.  I admit I cannot hold them back if I tried.  Is that weakness?  Well, we are all human and have weaknesses, but I am not sure tears equal weakness. Have you ever experienced the power of someone who you have known to be stoic or cold cracking their armor or lower their mask just enough to allow you in? It takes a special strength to drop all those protections and appear before humanity vulnerable and real.  So be confident that your tears are not wasted, do not merely fall and evaporate.  They have meaning and effect even when they are private.

Fear not, friends.  Allow your emotions to flow, do not be ashamed of being human. Embrace the courage and comfort of liquid prayers.

Spreading Salt

I was reading through the Sermon on the Mount in preparation for giving a message later this month and came to these words that I have read and heard many times, but never really took time to consider closely: “You are the salt of the earth”.  It made me stop in my tracks.  What does that mean, really?

Many have theorized that the verse is about being a good Christian and many sermons and treatises have been written saying just that, but Jesus was not speaking to just his disciples, or just his followers.  He was speaking to everyone.  We, all of us, are the salt of the earth, regardless of who we are or what we have done.  Everyone needs to be the salt, not just a select few.

So is it about good works?  No.  It is not about being a regular church-goer, or someone who tithes, or someone who wears their faith loudly and proudly.  Time and time again, Jesus urges humility, a personal and private connection with God, and even in the words of his most famous sermon, meekness.

It’s about grace.  It is about dealing with one another with respect and kindness.  Salt is many things.  Once, and still, it is a preservative.  If we maintain kindness and respect toward one another, we will preserve ourselves.  I believe we have the capability and responsibility to shape a heaven here on earth.  The Kingdom of God is not just in the future or the afterlife, it is not merely the act of waiting while we suffer through pain, it is not martyrdom. It is actively and constantly working toward His kingdom here on earth.  It is about keeping our saltiness, our grace, with each other.

Jesus was our example.  He instructs all of us to do as He does.  He instructs with gentleness and respect.  He reserves any warnings of condemnation for those who have abandoned kindness and who have embraced the pursuit of pride and the acquisition of things over the importance of humility and generosity.  Take a look at those in history who we have endowed with saintliness.  These are people, women and men, who have shown true grace.  We exalt them now because of the depth of their love, but in their own time, they did not seek out exaltation.  They merely followed the example of grace and love provided by Jesus.

Examples of grace, of saltiness, are not limited to those who follow the teachings of Jesus.  This is more proof to me that Jesus’ words transcend religion.  They go right to the core of what it takes to be truly human, to be born in the image of God.   Narayanan Krishnan is one of these human beings, a term I use with the utmost respect.  His story below is one of the most moving examples of kindness and generosity I have ever encountered.  He truly is the salt of the earth.

 

 

Consider the immense responsibility we all carry.  We are not here for ourselves, we are here for everyone.  We are here to care for, and love, everyone.  I have failed in meeting that responsibility up to now.  I lose myself so completely in the struggle to feed my own appetites that I neglect the very real hunger around me.   I have lost my saltiness, but there is hope.  We can rediscover our flavor, our ability to preserve.  We can make the road less treacherous.  We can listen and follow and inspire.

Desktops and Faith

Thanks to the generosity of the Grace Speaker, I again have a proper keyboard at which to type my thoughts.  The absence of a tangible keyboard was one of the reasons my writing took a hiatus.  It was certainly not for lack of ideas.  So many things have been rushing through my brain, but I find myself shackled by the necessity to hear the click clack of keys.  Composing on a tablet or smartphone is psychologically limiting to me.  While I consider myself relatively technologically savvy for one of my age, I still cling to certain conservative comforts, like being able to experience the tactile conveyance of words and ideas from my head through my fingers into a keyboard.  The light-emitting diodes that inhabit my phone do not have the same magnetic draw to me.  I suppose I am much like the person who refuses to give up their typewriter, or their heavy bond paper and fountain pen.

So many brilliant ideas slipped into the ether thanks to my resistance to touch-screen-fueled progress, but I suppose if they were truly as ground-breaking as they seemed, they would still be making their marks on my mind.  Instead we begin again.

The faith community to which I belong has been taking up much of my time, in positive ways mostly.  Over this past year, I have realized a long-time dream of delivering an inspirational message in front of an audience who was actually there to hear one.  Whether it was inspirational or not is a judgement I leave to those who heard it, but just the opportunity was an honor.

My faith has transformed in many ways.  What was once a collection of orthodox beliefs ingrained from an early age has become a more personal, nuanced way of embracing the world and those who inhabit it.  By no means have I been successful in repressing the appetites and desires that constantly seem to complicate what should be a simple life, but what I have been able to understand is that the efforts I make to control them is only one small part of the journey.  A more important part is the love required to interact with one another.  The Courageous Dear Heart reminded us this Christmas to look for Jesus in those who we may not like.  Think about that for a moment.  Put in your mind the image of a person with whom you struggle.  Now, attempt to see them with the sense of grace that Jesus saw us.  See the love in them, and by extension, yourself. Try to love the people that dislike you, that you dislike, or that you believe don’t think anything of you at all. If you can do it, it will transform how you view the entire world.  I’m not there yet, and maybe never will arrive at the end.  But the journey.  Maybe that is the way we strive for heaven here and now.

Politics and Faith

Read something that I found very disheartening today.  It disheartens me because, once again, a man who insists that he is a man of God, reveals that he is more motivated by politics than he is by his faith.  It also disheartens me because of the undue influence that personal faith has come to have on who we decide to support for political office.

On the first point, Franklin Graham’s father, the evangelist Billy Graham, is someone I respect, because while he did show his faith in a very public arena, and shared his faith openly with politicians from both parties, he never entered the realm of politics.  He never encouraged support for one politician over another, at least not implicitly.  I do not agree with his theology, but it’s hard to deny that his life showed him to be a decent man.

Now, his son appears on MSNBC throwing doubts on whether President Obama is a Christian.  His reasoning?  President Obama has said he is a Christian, but “he seems to be more concerned about them (Muslims) than the Christians that are being murdered in the Muslim countries”.  Ah.  Clearly, that is a solid reason to doubt someone’s faith.  Because, of course, as Muslims, they obviously deserve less concern than Christians do.  I mean, Jesus clearly taught that, right?  Well, let’s not judge Franklin GRaham too hastily.  Let’s see what he says about other candidates…

Rick Santorum – “His values are so clear on moral issues. No question about it… I think he’s a man of faith.”  Ok.  Obviously perception is what really matter in questions of faith.  I mean, if Rick Santorum wasn’t a man of faith, he couldn’t possibly have clear values on moral issues.  Because, certainly Jesus never would have related a parable about a Samaritan showing more mercy than a Jewish man of faith to illustrate that outward proclamations of faith mean nothing unless you actually exercise those values in your daily life.  I have my doubts about whether Rick Santorum is a man of faith, and they have far more to do with how he refuses to support initiatives that would assist the most vulnerable and poor among us.

And speaking of the Pharisees, who proclaimed their deep faith while hypocritically ignoring the basic commandments of that faith…

Newt Gingrich – “I think Newt is a Christian. At least he told me he is.”  Well, there you go.  Newt said so.  But, wait… didn’t President Obama say he was a Christian?  Oh, that’s right, but he appears to show more concern for Muslims.  And what of Newt?  He was divorced twice, had two affairs… where is the skepticism concerning his declaration of faith?  It appears that Franklin Graham’s criteria concerning faith is malleable.

Franklin Graham finally gives us his definition of what it means to be a Christian. “For me, the definition of a Christian is whether we have given our life to Christ and are following him in faith and we have trusted him as our lord and savior.”  Ok.  That makes sense.  But there is one problem.  No one has the ability to look into anyone else’s heart and determine whether they are a Christian or not.  So, Franklin Graham, whether you like it or not, it’s not for you to say if President Obama is or isn’t a Christian.  Case closed.

And that leads me to the second, and more troubling issue.  When was it mandated that the person elected as President of the United States of America has to be a Christian, or even a man of faith?  The truth – it’s not.  In fact, it’s not even suggested.  So, why do we, as citizens, feel the need to delve into a person’s faith when they run for this esteemed office?  Well, one argument contends that a Christian person has values that mirror the majority of Americans.  Interesting argument.  And one needs only point again to the parable of the Good Samaritan to refute it.  The Samaritan was not a Christian or a Jew or a man of faith.  Yet, he showed greater mercy than the other men of faith who passed by the man at the side of the road.  Faith does not make one more righteous than anyone else and it most certainly does not make one automatically qualified to hold public office.  It is wrong to assume that someone who says they are a Christian is a better choice to lead the United States than someone who is not.  If you use it as one part of a whole picture of a candidate, that’s reasonable.  But it makes little sense to me disqualify an excellent leader based solely on his faith or lack of it.

The sad fact of the matter is that questions of faith have become political tools of attack.  And the sad fact is that Franklin Graham is tarnishing his father’s legacy by using his pulpit in such a divisive fashion.  As a man of faith, he should respect the man that God has seen fit to allow to serve as President.  I was not a fan of President Bush and disagreed with his policies, but I respected him because of the office he held.  President Obama’s concern toward Muslims is in the best interest of the United States of America, because it was a lack of understanding and a belief that “we” are somehow better than “them” that contributed to the strife in the first place.  (And yes, that applies in both directions)

I know it is difficult to accept differences.  It requires all of us to lay aside preconceived ideas and try to engage our brains.  What bothers me most is that every time a man like Franklin Graham does something like this, it causes too many people to stop thinking.  God gave us this incredible capacity for reason.  It’s a sin that we don’t utilize it more often.

Belief

My personal faith is a complicated thing.

I grew up in the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, a very conservative Lutheran church body.  It’s rather paradoxical then that my views are very liberal concerning religion.  But, there is a comfort in attending a  church in the same synod in which you grew up – the familiarity of the liturgy, the hymns – even if the orthodoxy of the church runs in opposition to my ideals is some ways.

The WELS believes in some things that I find difficult to accept – the sinful nature of homosexuality, the submission of wives to their husbands and denying women the right to serve in leadership positions or even vote in church matters.  Those who know me understand my stance on these issues.  I do not believe that homosexuality is a choice or a lifestyle, it is part of who a person is.  I laid out my reasoning on this in a previous post.

I support women’s rights and the equality of genders.  In fact, I know of very few members of my church who would disagree with me.  However, the WELS feels that is a traditional value that women defer to men in marriage and church matters.  This always makes me chuckle a bit, because I know that women in our church DO exert their influence through their husbands.  But not allowing them to preach or participate based on a nearly two thousand year old decision to lay out Christianity as a paternal religion rather than an egalitarian one seems arbitrary at best – especially considering that it was a decision made by committee.  I’ve been to churches led by women.  Many were capable, intelligent and inspired. I have also attended a few churches led by men who had none of those characteristics.  The idea that God would impart those positive qualities only to men to lead a church is, frankly, ridiculous.

The thing about religion – any religion – is that it is a construct of humans, and thus, flawed.  Now this is not a diatribe against religion.  I believe religion serves an important purpose.  Many point to the evils wrought in the name of religion, and there are many, but has also been much good done.  As an example, thanks to mission work in Africa, medical care has been supplied in remote and rugged places.  There are many dedicated people who minister to the poor and destitute in the name of God.  These are truly good people and, if it was religion that guided them to serve their fellow human beings so selflessly, more power to them.  By the way, that kind of dedication to social welfare is not bound by religious beliefs.  Every religion (or non-religion) has multiple versions of their own Mother Teresa.  And as a musician, I cannot deny the treasure of music that religion has provided, especially in the Western tradition.  When people are moved to do good things based on their religious beliefs, that is when religion shows its true value here on earth.

So, what do I believe?  I believe that my faith is constantly in flux.  At one point, I seriously doubted the existence of God.  I have doubted the existence of Jesus.  These are ideas with which I constantly struggle. I have thought and studied and reasoned and searched.  And I do not have any answers.  Religion ultimately is the search for meaning.  Some of us need to believe we are here for a reason.  My belief is that we all do have a reason.  Finding it is what life is.  Some find their meaning of life in religion, others find comfort in religion, others see religion as a distraction, some see it as an evil.  I find comfort in my church.  At the very least, it offers me one hour a week to connect with my past and focus on my personal journey of faith.  At one point in my life, I was a “true believer”, unquestioning.  But that seems to be a weak way to approach something as important as God.  Isn’t it our duty to search and question and discover?  That seems a much stronger faith to me.  Even my fellow Lutherans have to agree that Martin Luther found his answers by questioning and doubting and researching for himself.

I believe that God set the universe in motion.  Now this may strike some of you as superstitious – that I am merely substituting a myth for something we don’t fully understand.  Well, there may be a bit of truth in that.  But in my life, I have viewed things so complex, so beautiful and so perfect that I have a difficult time believing that this all came about through happenstance.  Maybe someday there will be evidence that connects and explains all the complexity of this world… I don’t know.  I do accept evolution as fact.  There is a wealth of evidence to support it and really, it does not seem that God making the earth in seven days is important other than showing his power.  In my opinion, setting all this in motion and guiding it along seems powerful enough to me.

I believe in love.  And Jesus taught that love is the way.  I don’t disparage those who believe other than I do, and ask for the same in return.  Debate is wonderful and healthy, though, and any clergy worth their salt spends time with those outside their faith.

I don’t know whether I believe in heaven and hell. However, there is an afterlife of some kind, I believe.  Maybe it is an eternal reliving of our lives where we make different decisions.  Maybe it is a place where we observe those who are still alive.  My guess is that it is something beyond our comprehension, so focusing on the “maybe” of that takes us away from the importance of what we are supposed to be doing now – loving one another.

One thing that angers me is when people insert religion into politics.  The pursuit of earthy power by the radical religious Right is abhorrent to me.  It reeks too much of trying to establish an earthly kingdom when Christianity is focused on  a kingdom not of this earth.  Imposing beliefs in that manner is not a path of love, but of power.  You see… we humans have a way of mucking up a good thing.

So, as flawed, illogical and contradictory as it is, that is my faith. Right now.